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Red states are where the annual issuance of new high school equivalency diplomas has fallen by more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2016. Orange depicts drops greater than 20 percent. Yellow states dropped less than 20 percent. Data unavailable for Oklahoma. Credit: Data source: Thomas J. Hilliard, Center for an Urban Future. Map created by Jill Barshay/Hechinger Report

High school graduation rates have soared in recent years, hitting a new record of 84 percent for 2015-16 in the most recent federal government count, but there are still millions of Americans who didn’t get a diploma in high school. Their best shot at earning one is passing a high-school equivalency exam, what was known as the GED before 2014 but has now splintered into three exam options: the new GED, the TASC and the HiSET.

Little is known about what has happened to adult learners seeking high school degrees since the old GED exam disappeared because annual data is no longer published as it used to be every year. But thanks to a data collection effort by an expert in adult education at a nonprofit research organization in New York, Center for an Urban Future, we now have evidence of a sharp decline in new high school equivalency degrees in almost every state between 2012 and 2016.

Specifically, the annual number of test takers who completed one of the three exams has fallen more than 45 percent from more than 570,000 in 2012 to roughly 310,000 in 2016. The number passing the exam and earning a diploma has decreased more than 40 percent from almost 400,000 in 2012 to just over 225,000 in 2016.

“It’s a clear trend,” said Tom Hilliard, a senior fellow at the Center for an Urban Future, which primarily studies economic growth in New York. “Every state has fewer people obtaining high school equivalencies. We need to have alternative routes for people who don’t graduate from high school. Communities and states that have large populations of people who lack a high school credential are places that will have heavy users of public services, whether welfare or Medicaid.”

For the 32 million adults aged 18 and older who lack a high school diploma, an equivalency degree can be a path to the middle class. “It’s a stepping stone to some sort of post-secondary credential, which determines your economic mobility in life,” said Hilliard, adding that a high school degree is a prerequisite to pursue many professional certifications, from emergency medical technician to truck driver.

The decline in equivalency exams is affecting some states more than others.  In Alabama, equivalency diplomas have dropped by two-thirds from almost 8,000 annually to fewer than 3,000. (To put that in context, nearly 475,000, or roughly 15 percent of Alabama’s adults over 25, lack a high school degree or its equivalent.) The drop in equivalency diplomas was smaller in California — only a one-third decline — but that represents 10,000 fewer people earning degrees annually.

Hilliard says more research is needed to ferret out the root causes for the drop, but he suspects the problem is the combination of introducing new, more difficult exams amid state budget cuts.

In 2014, the old GED the exam was revamped and the two new exams, TASC and HiSET, entered the market. Some states offer only one of the three exams; others give adult learners an option of choosing among them. All three new tests are more rigorous than the old GED and were designed to mirror the changes in traditional high schools with the introduction of Common Core standards. The new exams test critical thinking and problem solving, not just rote memorization. In Hilliard’s analysis of New York state’s results, he found that the math section of the test was the biggest stumbling block for students.

Related: College students predicted to fall by more than 15% after the year 2025

At the same time, adult education spending by the federal government dropped 20 percent between 2000 and 2015 and hasn’t fully recovered. Many state budgets for equivalency test preparation were also cut. For example, in New York State, the primary funding source for adult education is the Employment Preparation Education program. Its annual budget is still $96 million, the same that it was 22 years ago. In real dollars, after adjusting for inflation, that’s a significant budget cut. Part of this budget was reallocated to another program, unrelated to high school equivalency. Under these financial pressures, it has been difficult for adult education centers to hire qualified teachers and give them the training to teach different and more challenging material.

Pass rates, the ratio of those who pass the exam to those who took it, are actually up. Almost three-quarters of the students who take and complete an exam passed it in 2016, compared with less than 70 percent in 2012, under the old GED. The problem is that too few students are taking the exams, and that’s why the number of equivalency degrees is down so sharply. It’s unclear from this data whether as many students are still enrolling and participating in adult education courses to prepare for these exams or if they are getting discouraged from attempting them as they study and take practice tests.

To be sure, we might have seen a drop in test takers and equivalency diplomas even if the exam hadn’t changed and instruction budgets hadn’t been pinched. The flip side of soaring high school graduation rates is a smaller pool of people without a traditional high school diploma. But Hilliard studied the pool of young adults 18 to 24 who lack a high school diploma — 4.3 million in 2016  — and the slower growth in that pool would account for only a small percentage of the equivalency decline, perhaps 10 or 15 percent. In other words, high school graduation rates haven’t soared rapidly enough to explain dramatic 40 percent declines in equivalency test taking and passing.

Economic recovery after the 2008 recession also reduced demand for equivalency degrees. When jobs were scarce, adults flocked to education to burnish their credentials. A high school diploma is the first step toward returning to college or getting a post-high school certificate. And so you might expect the number of newly minted equivalency degrees to be higher during a recession and recede afterward. Hilliard spotted a 7 percent increase in GED testing after the 2008 recession, but it had already receded by 2012, the year Hilliard used as his base year for comparison.

Hilliard chose 2012 to capture normal test-taking trends before the 2014 exam change. In 2013, the number of GED degrees was higher than usual because there was a big push to get more adults to take the old GED before it was phased out. The final comparison year, 2016, is two years after the 2014 change, giving some time for the transition. More recent data is not yet available.

Related: More high school grads than ever are going to college, but 1 in 5 will quit

It has been really hard to get a good national picture of high school equivalency numbers since the exam change in 2014. That’s because two of the testing companies do not publicly disclose their results, nationally or by state. Data on the HiSET test, administered by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service, is publicly available from annual reports.  But Pearson, which co-administers the new GED, and Data Recognition Corp., which administers the TASC, are for-profit companies. Both entered into confidentiality agreements with states, giving states ownership of the data and control over the release of information on the number of test takers and equivalency degrees obtained.

Hilliard collected national data as part of an in-depth study on high school equivalency in the state of New York. To assemble the aggregate national data on all three equivalency exams, Hilliard combined annual reports, unpublished documents, correspondence with state education officials and information provided by colleagues involved in adult education in 23 states. He was unable to obtain data for Oklahoma, which represented about 2 percent of equivalency diplomas in 2012 so the national figures represent roughly 98 percent of the nation. Hilliard shared his spreadsheet, which counts the number of test takers and degrees obtained in each state, with The Hechinger Report, and I used that to report the figures in this story and create the interactive map on this page. (Because of the missing Oklahoma data, I am conservatively reporting more than a 40 percent decline in equivalency diplomas, rather than the 42 percent that Hilliard calculated using the remaining 49 states and the District of Columbia.)

Hilliard recommends that federal and state governments raise adult education spending, especially for innovative programs that build a strong connection to post-secondary certificates and employment, such as Goodwill’s Excel Center and the Bridge to College and Careers program at LaGuardia Community College in New York.  And, Hilliard believes the federal government should require the public disclosure of information on equivalency degree attainment.

“This information needs to be publicly disclosed so that we all have a common understanding of what is going on,” he said. That’s the first step toward getting policymakers to focus on finding solutions.

This story about high school equivalency was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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  1. “‘This information needs to be publicly disclosed so that we all have a common understanding of what is going on,’ he said”; this should imply some commonly understood terminology for the qualification level under discussion, instead of lazily using “credential”, “degree”, “diploma”, and other terms as synonyms. Calling the GED, a weak version of an American high school certificate (this is the level at which an American high school “diploma” has its equivalency set outside this nation, since it is held to be broadly equivalent to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education), a “degree” is the height of both credential and semantic inflation, given that the OECD defines the “degree” level, for statistical purposes, as minimally achieving a Bachelor of Arts (or Science, or other degree beyond that of the North American Associate).

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